Can We Ensure That More Traffic Enforcement Doesn’t Lead to More Profiling?

Photo: Mike Kappel
Photo: Mike Kappel

As Chicago gears up to release its official Vision Zero plan later this winter, the Active Transportation Alliance’s Kyle Whitehead posted a thought-provoking article about the role of more frequent traffic enforcement in eliminating crash deaths. Whitehead argued that any additional enforcement of traffic laws by the city must be done in an equitable manner that does not “disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.”

While Whitehead noted that more consistent enforcement of traffic laws has been shown to reduce serious and fatal crashes in other cities, he also acknowledged that increased enforcement can lead to racial profiling, and that fine structures can be regressive:

There are far too many examples from across the country where law enforcement has used traffic enforcement as a guise to unfairly investigate vulnerable segments of the population. There are also many stories of low-income families struggling to pay overly burdensome fees and penalties for violations of traffic laws and other aspects of city code.

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice released a report that found widespread evidence of Chicago police officers using excessive force and violating the civil rights of African-American and Latino residents. Whitehead noted that, especially in light of the current state of local police and community relations, “officials must be clear that traffic laws will be fairly enforced and that community concerns about enforcement practices will be adequately addressed.”

As part of the strategy to reduce the number of serious and fatal crashes, Whitehead called for targeted in-person enforcement of the most dangerous driving behavior, such as speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, “without disproportionately impacting communities of color.” Whitehead also advocated for reforming Chicago’s red light and speed camera programs, noting that while automated enforcement has been shown to reduce fatalities in other cities, and Chicago’s cams have been shown to bring down the number of serious crashes, there’s room for improvement.

He also emphasized that enforcement is only one of the potential tools for implementing Vision Zero, and it must be combine with other strategies for reducing crashes, including street redesigns, safety education, commercial vehicle regulations, and more.

But any efforts to use enforcement to reduce serious crashes in Chicago in a way that does not unfairly target underserved neighborhoods will be complicated by the fact that these neighborhoods seem to be disproportionately impacted by traffic violence. A preliminary analysis by the Chicago Department of Public Health found that Chicagoans facing high economic hardship suffer a traffic fatality rate nearly twice as high as those facing low economic hardship. Anecdotally, from news reports, it appears that our city’s underserved communities are seeing more than their fair share of serious and fatal crashes.

Part of the reason for these discrepancies may be that lower-income Chicagoans tend to have more exposure to dangerous traffic due to higher rates of walking, biking, and transit use. In addition, many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides have physical attributes that make walking and biking less safe, such as expressway access ramps and wide, multilane streets where speeding and heavy truck traffic are issues. Some of these features are holdovers from the Urban Renewal era, when communities of color were often targeted by car-centric urban planning.

I asked Whitehead what strategies could be used to help ensure that any increased enforcement in lower-income neighborhoods doesn’t lead to unfair targeting of these communities by police.

“In developing and executing a Vision Zero Action Plan, the city should work with community leaders, advocates and residents to identify the most appropriate and effective strategies to prevent crashes and save lives,” he responded. He added that his recent article on enforcement was just one of a series of Active Trans posts highlighting their policy recommendations in other areas. “As advocates we recognize we can’t lead with enforcement or present it as the magic solution to safer streets, especially in low-income communities that are particularly vulnerable,” he said.

Again, the use of enforcement as a strategy to bring down crash rates in communities that have been plagued by traffic violence, as well as police abuse, is a complex issue. I’ll be exploring this topic further in a future article, including interviews with transportation justice advocates and experts.

  • planetshwoop

    Great article John — very timely!

  • Kelly Pierce

    The fairest kind of enforcement would be speed and red light
    cams. Subjectivity is minimized with
    automated enforcement. The Tribune reported that the city does not use crash
    data or any other empirical measurement to decide where to place the
    cameras. The Belmont off ramp from Lake
    Shore Drive has a camera not because Lakeview has a high crash rate but because
    it rakes in a lot of money for the city.
    If the cams were placed in the locations with the most crashes, the bulk
    of the cams would go to low income areas and communities of color. We have hundreds of people in Cook County
    jail on low level offenses because they do not have a few hundred dollars in bail
    money. It is likely that many people will
    not be able to afford their fines. If someone does not pay a $100 fine, does the
    car get confiscated and sold to pay the fines like with parking tickets? Ramped
    up enforcement has its downsides. The cars sold at auction for scrap to pay
    fines are a means for many to get to work. Significant new camera deployments
    will likely make voters unhappy and angry as well. Does active Trans actually believe City Hall is
    ready to double or triple the number of red light and speed cams and concentrating
    them in high crash areas? The organization’s
    shrug of its shoulders about fair traffic enforcement seems disingenuous. Active Trans has the resources of people and expertise
    along with a national network to know what has worked in other cities that typical
    community residents and local advocates do not have. Deflecting John’s question
    about fair enforcement practices suggests that Active Trans wants political
    cover for aggressive traffic enforcement.

  • Melody G

    Love, love, love this thread on mobility equity and transportation justice! Recommend Dr. Adonia Lugo and Naomi Dorner as national resources on the topic.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Naomi is quoted in this earlier article, and I consulted her for an upcoming column.



The Threat of Racial Profiling in Traffic Enforcement

Can urban police forces with histories of racial profiling and brutality be entrusted to carry out traffic enforcement as part of Vision Zero initiatives? In a Twitter chat yesterday, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership asked how to ensure that “law enforcement doesn’t profile or discriminate” when asked to uphold traffic laws. Responding on Cyclelicious, Richard Masoner offers some […]